Howard Pyle: Illustrator



Howard Pyle (1853-1911) an American artist, illustrator, author, and teacher was declared at the time of his death by the New York Times—“the father of American magazine illustration.”
Howard Pyle asked in Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1897, “Why have we no national art?” So, he began the discussion and creation of an American historical identity through his art.
Today, Howard Pyle is not nearly as well known, as are his magnificent images. However, back in the day, he was America’s most popular illustrator and storyteller. In effect, he was like a “movie star” in modern times. His illustrations appeared in magazines like Harper’s Monthly, Colliers Weekly, St. Nicholas, and Scribner’s Magazine—this exposure gained him national and world wide acclaim. Evidence of such recognition came from an unlikely source. In a letter to his brother, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “Do you know an American magazine—Harper’s Monthly? There are wonderful sketches in it… which strike me in admiration…by one Howard Pyle.” Today, many Americans have admired his images without knowing his name.

A short discussion of Pyle’s background and style follows. Americans had seen his work in school books, in art galleries, and in the study of the American Revolution. Many are struck by the style, force and vivacity of his images. His art spoke with a compelling, emotional force. Further examination of his style found that his heroes were depicted with a lively, animated quality of realism. In support of his legacy, there was evidence that he collaborated with renowned writers, politicians, historians, and poets. His most noteworthy colleagues were; Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Our discussion will be limited to a few of his paintings and an illustration of the American Revolution. Pyle’s work transformed American’s individual perceptions of the American Revolution into a collective set of national ideals. In effect, he shared his values with Americans by making us privy to historical moments between our American heroes and their supreme moments. Second, he took us back into history to experience an emerging moment that resonated through their animated faces and actions. Finally, he had the ability to consistently look for what he called the “supreme moment,” the phase of action that conveyed the most suspense. In a nutshell, Pyle’s art helped our nation to visualize and value its authentic history.
A brief description of his work will help us to discover or rediscover his masterful depictions of the American Revolution.

General Washington–Retreating through the Jerseys

“Retreating through the Jerseys,” showed the strong relationship between Washington and his men. The orderliness of their retreat exemplified a unity and strength, even as the outcome of the war was doubtful. Washington’s confidence and leadership in retreat gave his men a sense that their lives mattered; such was evidenced by the General’s careful strategy for engaging with the enemy. He defended his troops against annihilation and decimation by using retreat to save their lives. As a result, when he commanded them into battle, they trusted his leadership. Pyle captured the dramatic retreat and the esprit d’ corps of the army marching in step with General Washington leading the way. United we stand, divided we fall appeared to be the valued expressed in his painting.

Baron Von Steuben & General Washington at Valley Forge

Baron Von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, arrived at General Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge in 1778, he brought with him a renewed sense of spirit to Washington and the Continental Army. He commenced training soldiers in close order drill, instilling new confidence and discipline in the demoralized army. The painting of “General Washington and Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge,” stimulated one’s senses and feelings for the chilling outdoors. It was the dead of winter with freezing temperatures; blowing winds, and the sound of crunching snow was heard beneath army boots. The drawing invited Americans into the picture to share the enduring hardships with every soldier who served at Valley Forge. The importance of self-sacrifice in the name of freedom was implied.
Baron Von Steuben established standards of sanitation which included the order by General Washington to vaccinate his troops against smallpox. It was a decision that saved his army from disease and death, which became pivotal to the outcome of the war—the bonding between the generals was a dramatic moment in the history of the American Revolution.

John Paul Jones at the Battle of Flamborough, 1779

The Battle of Flamborough Head of 1779, featured a favorite American naval hero of Pyle. John Paul Jones raised his sabre in defiance of the British commander’s request to surrender. He defied the request with his famous reply, “I have not yet begun to fight.” If you allow yourself to be drawn into the painting,  one’s senses become overwhelmed with its sights and sounds; Cannons ablaze, muskets a fire, smoke filled the air, as Jones fought with desire. Jones transformed the naval battle with his bravery and determination to  overcome the odds and achieve victory. Pyle made us a part of that moment by depicting Jones as a hero. Jones’ hero like qualities were expressed through an intense facial expression and strong body posture. Furthermore, his image of Jones was rebellious, defiant, and unshaken in the face of the enemy.

Washington’s Refusal to be King

In a sketch of “General Washington’s Refusal to be King, Colonel Lewis Nicola presented him with a written document to declare Washington as King.  Washington fiercely refused, as he discarded the document to the floor. The mood in the drawing is defined by Washington’s unemotional rejection of the proposal in a room filled with silence. It appeared that the importance of loyalty to country  was his underlying message.



British Charge on Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill,” pictured the British troops commanded by Major  General William Howe; they were directed to make a second charge up Bunker Hill. They were accompanied by the sounds of fife and drum with a stern determination to retake the hill. The painting expressed the bravery and resolution of the colonists as they had to…wait until the last minute to fire. “Wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes,” shouted Colonel William Prescott to his troops. The British generals were astonished by the bravery of the colonists that day on Bunker Hill in 1775. Pyle painted the British army as a mass of military humanity, disciplined, battle tested, and as a fearless fighting machine. His illustration dramatized the moment of truth.

Howard Pyle’s genius as a man was never in doubt, but it was Pyle’s visual storytelling that  was remembered more than the man himself, and that was his legacy.

He helped the people of our nation to see —what it meant to be an American.

Mark Twain–Perils of a Steamboat Pilot


Mark Twain–Steamboat Pilot 1857-1861

What’s in a Name?

Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain) first attempts at writing found his pen names to be descriptive, comic illusions, such as; “Son of Adam, “ “Josh,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgras,” “Rambler,” and finally a pen name of “Mark Twain.” “Mark Twain” was a riverboat term measuring two fathoms (12 feet) in depth: mark (measure) twain (two) which meant a safe navigational depth to travel measured at twelve feet or—“safe water.” He became familiar with the term during his years as a steamboat pilot and as an apprentice on the Mississippi River (1857-1861). In 1861, things changed with the onset of the Civil War, which made commercial passage on the Mississippi River an impossibility– you might say that Mark Twain was a steamboat pilot up a stream without a paddle wheel.

Samuel Clemens Pens Mark Twain in Nevada

Coincidently at the time,  Orion, Samuel’s brother, was rewarded for his campaign support in the 1860 election of President Lincoln, as he was appointed secretary to the territory of Nevada. Orion left Hannibal, Missouri to fulfill his duties as secretary for Carson City, Nevada with Samuel in tow. Upon his arrival, Samuel found employment with a newspaper as a journalist in Virginia City, Nevada, it was there that Samuel Clemens first penned his famous pseudo- name “Mark Twain.” In retrospect, it was during his time as a steamboat pilot and young boy that his mind and imagination were cultivated and developed on his road to becoming a successful writer. How did Mark Twain learn his craft?

Steamboat Funk

As steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, he had full autonomy and decision making responsibility for the safety of his boat and passengers. From those lessons learned, he valued autonomy and self-expression; and in addtion, one might say that his time on the Mississippi River served as incubator for  his creativity and future career as a writer and humorist.
He observed that his  steamboat passengers were a traveling show of carnival acts; he wrote about them  using his  wicked imagination and sense of exaggeration.   Furthermore, he  created interesting stories with his amazing ability to bring his cast of characters to life with their own distinctive voices.  Finally,  he crafted a thoughtful portrait of the steamboat and the  river using an interplay between the contrasting qualities of good and evil.

During the interplay of these themes, he introduced many dangerous obstacles that faced the steamboat pilot in a sort of figurative tug of war with the pull of the rope being his sense of humor.
His understood the ways of the  river by listening to ghost tales and personal accounts that passengers shared; he would later embellish their stories using a mosaic of colorful and descriptive language and dialogue.

Such tales told of steamboat pilots and their floating palaces with tiers and filigree that made them as beautiful as a wedding cake.

Steamboat Travel:  Risky Business

By contrast, he heard and learned that these paddle wheelers were a dangerous means of transportation. Many steamboat pilots and their boats went to their death from recklessness, showboating speed, and commercial greed that made many boats mayflies of mortality. Aside from such reasons for causing the death of the boats; there were other dangerous hazards on the river that even an experienced steamboat pilot had difficulty trying to avoid: snags, sandbars, collisions, fires, and boiler explosions.

Steamboats Speeding


A steamboat’s cargo-cotton, hay, and turpentine


Smokestacks on open decks discharged the exhaust of open furnaces that belched cinders onto the wooden decks that contained cargo of cotton, turpentine, or hay. If a fire started on deck and spread to the boilers, a calamitous explosion ensued that hurled boat fragments and human bodies hundreds of feet into the air. When these fragments didn’t land back on deck or in the river, the victims’ bodies or body parts flew clear to shore and sometimes crashed through the roof of a building. One contemporary account said, “…shot like a cannonball through the solid wall of a house.”

1867, U.S.S. Quaker City, traveling to Holy Land.

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.  And it was not a book to be read once and thrown to the aside, for it had a new story to tell everyday.” —Mark Twain, “Life on the Mississippi.”

Sam the Man

Samuel Clemens was superstitious and occasionally sentimental, but at the same time, he was intellectual, practical, and ultimately wiser than the many of the Americans who read his works. It was his inner voice which spoke to the consciousness of the nation. His outspoken voice was against social injustice.  Currently, we are a country that struggles with issues of prejudice, bigotry, and hatred. Mark Twain’s  humorous stories and his use of figurative language provided a delicate voice  for hope.  He hoped to start a conversation about  social injustice in America that  would be heard  around the country in the name of peace and harmony.

His humorous stories are desperately needed today to  build   bridges of enlightenment between races and  cultures; this may be accomplished by  engaging the people of our nation in  a back and forth narrative. A narrative of  humorous stories with moral endings to support ideas   of  tolerance and understanding.  The resulting laughter  could help to make America great again, when Americans can laugh  at themselves!

After the Civil War, Samuel Clemens called for Americans to mend their fences and stand united as a people. In summary, he wrote of his own personal history; while at the same time, he wrote about our country’s past, present, and unpredictable future .

Post Script:

Henry Clemens died aboard the steamboat– Pennyslvania.

Henry Clemens, Sam’s younger brother, died June 21, 1858 as a result of injuries received in the explosion of the PENNSYLVANIA on June 13, 1858. Sam related the incident in Chapter 20 of Life on the Mississippi. After an altercation with Pilot William Brown, Sam left the PENNSYLVANIA in New Orleans on June 5. Henry continued on in his capacity as a “mud clerk” with the PENNSYLVANIA and was on board when the boat exploded.

In his book, “Innocents Abroad”, he wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Ulysses S. Grant & Mark Twain–Friends Forever


Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885)
Mark Twain (1835-1910)


A plausible phone conversation between Ulysses S. Grant and Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens in 1885.

“Hello operator get me Sam Clemens pronto in Hartford Connecticut, this is Sam Grant calling.”
“Hello, Sam Clemens here, Mister President, it’s a pleasure to hear from you. How’s things in New York?’
“I will get to the point, things are dire; I have tongue squamous cell carcinoma, and it is highly aggressive, and in an advanced stage. I have little time to waste for my life is soon coming to an end. Compounding my life are some unfortunate circumstances surrounding my lost finances due to the bankruptcy of Grant and Ward (Grant & Ward Investments).
Sam, I’m broke and about to lose everything to creditors. I have one last battle to fight; it is the writing and the selling of my memoirs. I am doing this to save my family from embarrassment and financial ruin. I need your help.
“Mr. President, you know as a longtime friend, I am only too happy to help you. What is it you need?”
“I need your opinion. I am finishing up my memoirs and plan to sell them to a publisher for $25,000.
Grant is Interrupted by Clemens, “Hold your horses, don’t sign anything, you can make a better business deal with me.
“Sam, I have always known you to be honest and straightforward. You aren’t making humor out this are you?” queried Grant.
“Mr. President, these are the times that try men’s souls, hear me out.” You deserve fairness, truthfulness, and frankness regarding the publication of your memoirs. I will see you in the morning with a straight forward contract to sign that will benefit your family beyond your measure,” declared Clemens.
“Sam Clemens, you know, that I never wanted to write these memoirs, although it has come to a place where my family needs the financial support. It will be the last battle I fight. See you in the morning,” affirmed Grant.

The Last Photograph of Grant, taken just four days before his death.
This is a story of friendship. Over a period of just fifteen months, from Grant’s bankruptcy and diagnosis of terminal cancer in May 1884 until the former general and ex-president died in July 1885, Sam Grant and Sam Clemens became best of friends. In the end, the struggle of both men—Grant’s quest to retrieve his fortune and Twain’s to make his—was not about wars or books or even money. During their friendship Grant and Twain wrote the story of their country and ours.

Grant writing his memoirs fighting his throat cancer.


On February 22, Grant signed a publishing contract with Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) and Charles L. Webster and Company to publish his memoirs. On June 8, Grant told Twain that he had completed volume II of his memoirs. Just a month later, July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant died at 8:08 a.m.



Grant’s Memoirs were published in two volumes.


When Grant’s memoirs were published; they were the topic of intrigue and challenged by the contradictions in Grant’s life. Regardless of the fickleness of public opinion, Ulysses S. Grant was a man of personal integrity and honor which has stood the test of time.

Julian Dent Ward married Ulysses S. Grant on August 22, 1848.



The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was a commercial success, Julia Grant, his wife, received about $450,000 in royalties. Grant’s successful autobiography pioneered a way for ex-presidents to earn money after their term of office. Mark Twain called the memoirs a “literary masterpiece.”